Mozart: Complete Violin Concertos (CD review)

Also, Sinfonia Concertante. Rachel Barton Pine, violin; Matthew Lipman, viola; Sir Neville Marriner, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Avie AV2317 (2-disc set).

What do you get when you combine all five of Mozart's violin concertos along with the Sinfonia Concertante in a single set? And then you have them performed by one of the world's leading violinists, Rachel Barton Pine? And you find her accompanied not only by the great Academy of St. Martin in the Fields but by its founding director, Sir Neville Marriner? And Avie does all of it up in good, natural sound? You get a darned fine recording all the way around, that's what you get.

Mozart wrote his violin concertos in Salzburg around 1775 or a little before when he still in his late teens. Audiences for the past two hundred-odd years have appreciated their appealing melodies and expressive style. Interestingly, Mozart never returned to the violin concerto as such for the rest of his life, probably because as a piano virtuoso he liked composing for that instrument, writing over twenty-seven piano concertos. (Although, to be fair, Mozart was also a violin prodigy, but later apparently preferring the piano.) In any case, one usually has to buy two or three albums to own all five violin concertos by a single performer, so already it's a good deal to find Ms. Barton Pine doing all of them in one set. Also interestingly, Ms. Barton Pine has recently been playing all five concertos in single concerts. Those must be some programs.

As welcome as Ms. Barton Pine is in this music, we must also welcome Sir Neville back conducting the group he co-founded in 1958. You would think that at nearly ninety years of age (at the time of this recording) he might be slowing down, but apparently not. His accompaniment is as alert as ever, and it goes without saying that the Academy play as smoothly and precisely as ever.

Now, as to the performances: Don't expect anything quite like the quick, fleet-footed readings of Anne-Sophie Mutter and the London Philharmonic (DG) or Lara St. John and The Knights (Ancalagon), to name a couple of my favorites in this repertoire. No, Barton Pine and company adopt tempos closer to Ms. Mutter's early recordings with Karajan (DG) and Muti (EMI), moderate tempos that nevertheless bring out all the beauty and expressiveness these concertos have to offer. As we might expect from Marriner and the Academy, especially, these are elegant, stylish performances, filled with delicate nuances and ravishing lines.

The powers that be at Avie Records arranged the concertos with Nos. 4, 1, and 3 on disc one and Nos. 5, 2, and the Concertante on disc two. Well, I don't suppose the order makes any difference; Mozart wrote all of them at about the same time. Except when it comes to trying to find something in the set; then you have to check the packaging to see where to find a specific concerto. Did Avie just want to start with a popular concerto by beginning with No. 4? Or was it a matter of what they fit on each disc? I dunno. But how hard would it have been to put the longest work, the Concertante, first, followed by Nos. 1 and 2 on disc one? They would easily have fit, as would Nos. 3-5 on disc two. A trivial criticism, in any event.

So, things begin with the Violin Concerto No. 4 in D, K218, certainly one of the most well-known and possibly most-beloved of the concertos. OK, one can understand why Avie started with No. 4. In Ms. Barton Pine's capable hands and with Marriner and company providing such expert support, the whole thing is a delight. Oh, and Mozart left no cadenzas for any of the five concertos, so Ms. Barton Pine has written her own. She says she feels more comfortable playing her own personal cadenzas, and certainly they seem to fit Mozart's style and moods.

Rachel Barton Pine
And so it goes. The Concerto No. 1 has a zippy poise about it, energetic yet never rushed, with a charming Adagio, the dialogue between soloist and orchestra always an attractive two-way affair. No. 3 Barton Pine says is her favorite, and it shows in her enthusiasm and loving attention. She claims it's Mozart's "friendliest" key, G major, and the first movement most resembles an aria. She performs in a most songlike manner, the second-movement Adagio soaring plaintively.

No. 5, which leads off the second disc, is the longest of the violin concertos and among the most creative. Barton Pine and her fellow players handle it in stride, highlighting its playful yet contrasting tones start to finish. The first movement alone plays like a miniature concerto in three parts: fast, slow, fast. The second and third movements, an Adagio and Minuet, are graceful and smiling, with Ms. Barton Pine again bringing these qualities to the fore. The final violin concerto in the set, No. 2, seems a little simple, almost old-fashioned, by comparison to the previous piece, yet the performers again bring out the best in it, with a pleasingly infectious cadence throughout.

The album concludes with the Sinfonia Concertante in E flat for violin and viola, K364, from 1779, and here violist Matthew Lippman appears with Barton Pine. Mozart's mother had died the year before he wrote it, and most critics agree that the music reflects this loss. It shows a greater seriousness and maturity than the violin concertos and more-ambitious orchestration. Ms. Barton Pine and her companions play it in a wholly appropriate fashion, emphasizing its solemn nature without making it sorrowful or overly sentimental. It's maybe the most-brilliant and impressive work on the program, and Barton Pine and company execute it with both passion and compassion.

Producer Andrew Keener and engineer Simon Eadon recorded the album at Air Lyndhurst Studios, London in August and September 2013. There's a sweet warmth around the sound, with a flattering hall resonance providing a realistic ambience. Yet the bloom is not so great that takes anything away from the recording's clarity, which remains good. The soloist appears well integrated into the ensemble, just out ahead of the orchestra and to the left. The orchestral detail is fine, as is the depth and dimensionality of the group; and Ms. Barton Pine's violin sounds wonderfully transparent, almost glowing in its excellence.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa